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It was almost six years since this article. Is planning a smart home still a daunting task? 6 years back, there were only less choices available. Fast forward six years later, at the current rate of product releases, there seems to be a much wider choice to choose from. Most people ended in paralysis by analysis, trying to pick the right technology and brands. Do we still need to rewire and is there a need to engage someone to do the setup for us? Once again, we’ll try to shed some light and navigate an even bigger labyrinth of options.
Let’s take a look at the wireless technologies are out there before narrowing down to the products and what you can control. The usual players such as Zigbee and Z-Wave are still around and are getting stronger. X-10 is almost gone for good while UPB and Insteon are almost non-existent in Singapore. There are also more affordable Bluetooth, Wifi and RF 433 Mhz based smart home devices available now. We shall not go into details of these technologies.
On top of these, there is also Thread, a wireless protocol developed by a group of companies including Nest, Samsung, QUALCOMM, and OSRAM. Thread was designed to allow the devices in its protocol to communicate even when the WiFi network is down. Well, we have not seen any Thread products out there yet, however the protocol is Google owned and that makes it really exciting!
You may be wondering why we didn’t mention Apple HomeKit. While many people want HomeKit devices, it is actually not a wireless technology but more of a controlling software layer. You see HomeKit enabled device that actually runs on Wifi, Bluetooth or even Z-Wave. To us, it is more of an app standard than a wireless standard.
Lightings: We now have switches, bulbs, downlights and LED strips that can be controlled by Z-Wave, ZigBee, Wifi, Bluetooth and even proprietary RF 433 Mhz. Generally, some wiring work is required if you are installing a Z-Wave or Zigbee enabled light switch. This option allows you to control any conventional lighting with your app as well as on the light switch itself independently. However, if you are just buying connected light bulbs, downlights or LED strip such as Philip Hue, Lightify or Lifx, then you have to keep the light switch on and control your lights mainly with your app or voice control.
Window covering: Curtains and roller blinds in a way also affect the lighting condition in the house. We are also seeing more homeowners installing motorised rollerblinds and curtain tracks. Most of these are controlled with RF remote controllers and if you like to hook it up to a smart home system, you can still wire it to a Z-Wave module during installation to setup scenes and close the blinds based on time or even the brightness detected in the room. There are also some brands such as Somfy or Dooya with Z-Wave radio built in for easy integration.
Home Entertainment: Fortunately (or unfortunately), we still largely depend on IR and we now have products such as Logitech Harmony and very affordable Broadlink RM Pro. Some smart home hub such as Athom Homey also have built-in IR blaster for this purpose. We are hoping that HDMI-CEC control can be more prevalent for home entertainment control in the future.
Air-Conditioning: For us to enjoy self regulating cool air at home, there are products such as Tado, Sensibo and Ambi climate that allow you to preset, control your AC via an app or even voice. If you want a more integrated solution, the good old Z-Wave Remotec AC controller still does the job well. Some of us may wonder if Google Nest would work here. Unfortunately, Nest works on heating and cooling standards that are not available in Singapore.
Security: Let’s talk about door locks, IP cameras and video intercom in this sub-section. We have Z-Wave door locks such as Danalock that also comes with Bluetooth. Yale and Samsung locks are manufacturing more models that are both Z-Wave and Bluetooth enabled. We believe that you will not see a Wifi door lock because batteries are never going to support the power hungry Wifi radio.
Increasingly, other than having IP cameras in the house, we are seeing more video doorbells such as Ring and DoorBird. While more homeowners living in apartments are installing Ring to screen their visitor with their mobile phones, landed properties owners are using DoorBird to screen, talk to the visitors as well as opening their gates with the app itself. Almost gone are the days where you require a permanent intercom panel on the wall just to talk to the person outside.
Appliances: Manufacturers such as Samsung, LG and Bosch are now producing connected washing machines, fridge, coffee makers and oven. With these appliances, we can now play music on your Sonos once the coffee is done or even blink a bulb when the washing machine has completed a cycle.
How You Can Control
Just controlling your smart home with an app is almost a cliche now. Everything can be controlled with an app. In fact, you have an app from each company that produces a smart home device. So you ended up with an app to control your lights, one to control your AC and another two to control your door lock and video intercom!!!
Luckily, with the introduction of Amazon Echo and Google Home, you can almost do away with all these app and just use your voice to control lighting, curtains, home entertainment and security devices. Just say “Ok Google, play music on spotify” or “Ok Google, show me Avengers trailer, on YouTube” to enjoy your evening. WIth the Amazon Echo Show, you can also ask to view an Arlo IP camera or Ring Doorbell just by saying, “Alexa, show me my front door”.
Smart Home Gateway
With all these smart home devices out there, you may ask if you still need a Smart Home hub or gateway? It depends on the scope and the level of sophistication you like to have for your home. If you are just happy with voice control of some lights and AC separately, you don’t need one. It also cost a bomb to change all your lights to Philip Hue compared to changing of light switches to a Z-Wave light switch that works with any conventional lights.
Making your home more orchestrated is another reason to still use a smart home hub. You need one if you want sensors to turn on entrance light when you open the door, turn on different lights when the sensor detects motion at different time and have your lamp blink when your video doorbell is pressed. Another main reason for having a smart home hub is to use a single app to control and monitor everything.
We only mention gateway that are capable of achieving a complete smart home solution here (Typical IR/RF blasters, that works on one way communication and doesn’t work with sensors, are not considered as a smart home gateway). The contenders in this section that are as follows:
FIBARO Home Center: This gateway controls mainly Z-Wave devices only, hence it is used to control your lighting, air-conditioning, curtains and door locks; and it has been going a good job. It has been a more popular gateway in Singapore despite its price. However, FIBARO seems to be stuck in their own world, ignoring the integration with Wifi, ZigBee, Bluetooth and RF 433 Mhz devices out there. Even though they have plugins to Philip Hue and Logitech harmony, you cannot include them in a scene. You cannot create a scene that turn on the light and the TV at the same time with Philip Hue and Harmony hub. It has an Alexa Skill that lags terribly and does not have a Google Home integration that works out-of-the-box.
Xiaomi: The reason we chose to mention Xiaomi here is about interoperability. Xiaomi seems to have almost everything. It has Zigbee sensors, light switch, IR blaster to control TV, air-conditioning. You can also control curtains, Xiaomi air purifier, vacuum cleaner etc. It seems like it has everything you want at a very affordable price. We do see many homeowners who do not have much budget to start with Xiaomi and end up with many other different things that doesn’t work with Xiaomi. The reason is Xiaomi hub works mainly and only with Xiaomi stuff. In today’s IoT world, you need a future proof system that have the capability to ‘talk’ to almost everything else. Oh by the way, because Xiaomi was built to target mainly China market, don’t expect Google Home and Amazon echo to work with many of Xiaomi devices for now.
Samsung Connect Home: The Samsung Connect Home comes with all the goodness of SmartThings with integrated wifi mesh router (actually it is the other way round). This is one of the hub that works with Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth and Wifi enabled devices. In fact, it works with almost 80% of the stuff we mentioned in this post including Samsung appliances. The good thing about Samsung Connect Home is that it already works with Amazon Echo and Google Home out-of-the-box. One drawback is that it’s Z-Wave radio for Singapore is now in Korean frequency. This means it will take some time for suppliers locally to source for Z-Wave compatible products. The other drawback is unlike FIBARO, if your internet connection is down, basically nothing is running. You cannot even control with your phone over local wifi.
Homey: We probably have said enough about Homey but we’ll mention it again for completeness sake. Athom Homey is like a SmartThings except that it also comes with an IR blaster, RF 433Mhz and NFC radio! It works with a huge array of smart home devices including those that works with Samsung Connect Home, Bosch appliances and even Xiaomi devices. For voice control, it works with Google Home, Amazon Echo out-of-the-box, except that you have to say “Ok Google, tell Homey to turn on the lights” or “Alexa, ask Homey to turn on TV”. This is also the only smart home gateway to support Apple Homekit and you can also hold up your Apple watch to say “Hey Siri, turn on water heater”. Like Fibaro, if your internet is down, you are still able to control your smart home devices on local wifi. Homey produces their hub with two variants: Z-Wave EU and Z-Wave Korean frequency (soon). Homey, however, is without drawbacks. Every integration to other smart home devices are developed by a group of open source community. If there is any issue with the integration, you just need to have patience to wait for a fix from the community.
Should I DIY?
Here comes the question of DIY. The ease of configuring your smart home has improved over the years. Some of the UI are really intuitive even for slightly complexed scenes. We advocate DIY on the software setup if you have the time and patience. It is still a tedious process but definitely not difficult. After all, it is your home and only you will know your living habits. You should be the one tweaking the system to fit your lifestyle instead of waiting for professional to do it. Except for smart home devices that require rewiring works to be carried out by experienced electrician, we would say, please at least attempt the DIY route before engaging a professional.
We recommend homeowners to choose a system that they can easily understand how it works and its limitations. Systems with multiple radios are usually more future-proof than those that only works with a particular wireless technology or a particular brand. The IoT world is growing more complexed and every standard exists because it works well in specific situation (i.e., sensors and door locks cannot be on Wifi, IR is best for home entertainment systems and cameras can only be on Wifi). Voice control will now be the norm, so system that works with Google Home or Amazon Echo will be a good bet. Finally, DIY-ing your software setup will ensure maximum ROI on your smart home investment.
That being said, you can still always come to us to start your smart home journey regardless you want to DIY or not, since the “mess” of smart home devices in the market is only going to get worse!
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Windows 10 users are going to be able to treat their PCs more like smart home hubs. Windows Central reports today that Microsoft has added a “connected home” section to Cortana. From this new menu, users can sign into smart home services, thereby giving Cortana control. It’s currently compatible with Wink, Insteon, Nest, SmartThings, and Hue. Windows Central notes that it’s seen the connected home menu on both Windows 10 desktop and mobile, so it’s likely rolling out now.
The Verge‘s Tom Warren reported earlier this year that Microsoft was working on a new HomeHub feature that would create a family environment on the PC with shared access to calendars and apps. The idea was also to enable Windows 10 to serve as a smart home hub for connected devices.
While Microsoft toils away on those features, it’s also preparing for the release of Harman Kardon’s Cortana-powered Invoke speaker, which will be the first speaker to include the assistant. We don’t know when exactly it’ll go on sale, but an early Microsoft Store listing went live yesterday with the speaker priced at $199. Microsoft’s clearly getting serious about competing with Google, Amazon, Apple, and even Samsung for control of the smart home.